Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Cozying up to Leslie Meier, THE WICKED WITCH MURDER

Originally scheduled for October (understandable, in terms of Halloween!), Leslie Meier's new Lucy Stone mystery is now headed for an August 31 release -- just in time to be a helpful distraction as the working and school worlds gear up for cool-weather labors. In fact, "cozy" mysteries -- the ones where the sleuth's profession is almost anything other than detective, cop, or forensics, medical, or legal professional -- at their best, offer a brisk plot line, characters that you can picture living next door, and situations that seem completely understandable.

And that's the sort of situation where Lucy Stone finds herself at the opening of this thought-provoking and enjoyable novel. A small-town reporter on a weekly paper in the fictional town of Tinker's Cove, Maine, Lucy's a mom and a grandmom, and her two youngest daughters are still in high school, living at home. When Lucy's buddy Pam makes an appointment for the four friends (Lucy, Pam, Sue, Rachel) to get a psychic reading at the new business in town, Solstice, Lucy's adamantly skeptical. But, she figures, this is a chance to figure out how the fakery and trickery is done ... and maybe even get a good story for the Pennysaver, the paper she works for.
She was happily married, had four well-adjusted children and an adorable grandchild, and she wasn't at all interested in meeting a tall, dark stranger or going on a long trip. And so far, none of her dear, departed relatives had tried to contact her, and that was the way she liked it.
Although Lucy's common sense helps her keep Diana Ravenscroft's "Magick" in perspective, it can't make real evil disappear. All too soon after Diana's arrival in town, malice begins to crystallize around her and her business. In fact, it's Lucy who first discovers it:
A fire? wondered Lucy, stepping closer for a better look until she was practically overcome by a powerful stench of decay. There was no doubt, she realized with horror as she discovered whitened bones and bits of charred cloth, that she'd stumbled upon the burned body of a human being.
And that's just at the beginning of spring; this lively mystery goes clear through to Halloween. Threats, at least one more death, and risk to Lucy's family and to her are rising with the ripening year.

The first personal shock comes from Lucy's daughter Sara, who wants passionately to be able to study with the exotic and intelligent Diana Ravenscroft, casting minor spells, mixing potions, and in general saving the world, one person at a time. Sensibly, Lucy sees Sara's hunger for these activities as one way to feel powerful and in control, in a time when global warming and other environmental threats have made life seem scary. Compassionately, she agrees that Sara can go learn from Diana, as long as Lucy and her husband are kept informed.
"No more secrets, okay?"
"So I can join the coven?" exclaimed Sara, wiping her eyes and smiling.
Lucy's jaw dropped. "Coven? You said it was like Girl Scouts."
Oops. Girl Scouts, it's not. Nor is the town reaction -- which begins to demonize Lady Diana and her friends, as well as the new business in town.

Lucy's struggles to be open-minded while also insisting on reality, especially for her daughters, are heart-warming. She's also persistent, though, in prying into why bad things keep happening and who is provoking them. Is it the coven, with Lady Diana? Or is there a more specific source of malice and ill-will in town?

Meier is an accomplished author of a long string of Lucy Meier mysteries, and she's a good storyteller. As the conflicts of ordinary town life play out against the longings of teenage girls, Lucy exerts the best skills a journalist can summon: not just inquisitiveness and use of contacts, but reliance on friends for both perspective and backup.

This mystery will fit nicely on a shelf dedicated to New England, with its Maine setting; in a collection of determined women taking on challenges; and, of course, in any group of books organized around that holiday of magic, mystery, and fun, the American Halloween. And it's just plain fun to read. Bookmark the title for the end of the summer, when your beach reading is over and you need to balance that force of life that's drawing you back to work!

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